Thabo Sefolosha Carves Out Valuable Role With Rockets

Michael Shapiro

There's not much that can faze Thabo Sefolosha in his 14th NBA season. The 35-year-old forward has played for four teams in the last seven years, seeing his role fluctuate from key rotation player to end-of-bench supporter. His first season in Houston has been similarly chaotic.

Sefolosha started 2019-20 as a contributor in head coach Mike D'Antoni's rotation, logging 11.4 minutes per game through Nov. 30. Sefolosha spent much of his time on the floor as a backup wing, and in a pinch, he played some small-ball four. But his minutes began to wane around Christmas.

The former Thunder stalwart was inactive for seven straight games from Dec. 23 through Jan. 8. He played more than 10 minutes just twice in a 20-game stretch prior to mid-January, turning what was once a stable role on the floor into a consistent seat near the end of the bench. But Sefolosha didn't sulk. Instead, he remained one of the most vocal Rockets as they looked to stabilize a shaky defense.

"[Sefolosha] is a pro’s pro," Rockets guard Austin Rivers said on Feb. 9. "He’s a vet, he knows how to be a professional, he’s always ready. Even when he wasn’t playing he was involved in the game vocally, which is impressive. ...He stays locked in, stays focused."

Sefolosha's continued preparation wa prudent. He was thrust back into the Rockets' rotation at the end of January, this time sporting a new position: small-ball center. As Clint Capela battled a heel injury (before being shipped to Atlanta), Sefolosha emerged, providing critical center depth behind P.J. Tucker. With Tyson Chandler and Isaiah Hartenstein buried in Houston's rotation, it was time for Sefolosha to step up. The 2006 first-round pick was ready for his new role. 

"It's a new time for me," Sefolosha told the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen. "It’s great to be out there, communicating with the team, trying to make progress daily."

So how has Sefolosha fared in his new role? Pretty darn well. He's fourth on the Rockets in net rating since Jan. 26, and only Robert Covington has a better defensive rating among rotation players since Jan. 1. 

Sefolosha is an unconventional small-ball five, at least compared to Tucker. While the Texas product relishes the chance to bang with opposing bigs, Sefolosha is a switching master. His agility and length makes him a menace on the perimeter, and he's been a key catalyst in the Rockets' increased turnover production of late. Sefolosha is a valuable partner specifically next to James Harden. He can quickly jump onto the perimeter to cover opposing point guards, allowing Harden to sink down into the paint. Harden is vulnerable on the perimeter. Attempt to post him up at your peril. Sefolosha's versatility keys the Rockets' defense when their second units take the floor. 

“Everything we do on the defensive end is team oriented. We switch a lot," Sefolosha said. "Everybody is in different positions, different spots. ...It takes a lot to make it work.”

Sefolosha remains a middling offensive player. He hasn't scored in double digits in a single game this season, and he's shooting a shade under 30% from three. Perhaps Bruno Caboclo steals some of his minutes when the young forward returns from a knee injury. But for now, Sefolosha remains a key member of the small-ball Rockets. D'Antoni will likely continue to rely on the veteran forward as the Rockets compete for the Western Conference crown. 

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